The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkein

In flowing, beautiful language, The Silmarillion tells the origin and early tales of J.R.R. Tolkein’s middle-earth. Written as “Elven” songs, The Silmarillion is dense at times. Yet as the tale of the creation of Arda and the children of Ilúvatar (both Elves and men) unfolded, I was in awe of not just Tolkein’s incredible control over language but with his unbounded imagination in creating a new world with new gods, fantastic creatures, and a familiar story of good versus evil.

I’ve been told that The Silmarillion is not for the faint of heart. I’ve been told that The Silmarillion is only for die-hard fans of The Lord of the Rings. I’ve been told that The Silmarillion is impossible to understand and get through.

I don’t think so.

I have never read The Hobbit. I have never read The Lord of the Rings (although I started once). I watched the movies and was entertained. And then, as my husband and I read The Silmarillion together over the past six months, reading about 20 pages a week, I personally have come to love the style, the stories, and the world Tolkein has masterfully created.

The Silmarillion is written as epic stories (supposedly sung by Elves from generation to generation). Tolkein has written in a writing style somewhat reminiscent (although more beautiful) of the King James Version of the Bible, which makes for challenging reading sometimes. Also, in the spirit of Greek mythology, there are lots of god-like immortals, which became rather confusing. Dozens of names sound alike; if I tried to sort them out, I started to get confused.

But The Silmarillion is far more beautifully written than any other “old-fashioned” writing, and I found the legends of the middle-earth Elves to be fascinating. Because I was reading The Silmarillion so slowly, I “let go” and decided I didn’t care if I sorted out each name as I came to it; I just enjoyed the language and the story. This approach worked quite well for me. I enjoyed it, and while I might not be able to tell you how each story related to each other, I don’t think it really matters.

An Example of the Language

In the “Ainulindalë,” Ilúvatar (the father of Elves and men) called the Ainur (the god-like leaders) together and instructed them to make a symphony, which would help create the world:

Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void.

But when they were come into the Void, Ilúvatar said to them: ‘Behold your Music!’ And he showed to them a vision, giving to them sight where before was only hearing; and they saw a new World made visible before them, and it was globed amid the Void, and it was sustained therein, but was not of it. And as they looked and wondered this World began to unfold its history, and it seemed to them that it lived and grew.

In the next few hundred pages, we, as readers, join the Elves in recalling the history of the world, as the Children of Ilúvatar lived and grew.

I personally think this writing is absolutely beautiful! If you don’t think so, you may not like reading The Silmarillion, for much of the language follows similar sentence structure.

My Experience

The version of The Silmarillion that we read included not just the lengthy story of The Silmarillion (the story of the Silmarills, the three jeweled rings containing the light from a tree of Valinor). It also contained the “Ainulindalë” (the story of the creation of the world and the evil that came into it, as quoted in part above), the “Valaquenta” (the story of the Valar, the Ainur who take responsibility for governing middle-earth), and the “Akâllabeth” (the story of the downfall of the men of Númenor), as well as some end-matter (glossaries, pronunciation guides, and pages of “facts” about various Elven practices, like marriage and naming.

I admit that I did get bored reading the end-matter in our version, which I read by myself. The “facts” sections didn’t have a story line and I’m not a “die-hard” middle-earth fan, so while marriage customs of the Elves was interesting, it wasn’t engaging.

In some respects, people may think that The Silmarillion itself does not have very much story line. It’s true that in places Tolkein details geography and genealogy in excess. But I’d suggest that even when the story is weak or more informational than interesting, Tolkein’s language brought me back into the book. The end-matter lacked much of the entertaining language, possibly because much of the book was compiled from J.R.R. Tolkein’s notes by his son, Christopher Tolkein, after he died; the end-matter sections may have actually been compiled by Christopher, and not J.R.R. Tolkein.

I always swore I’d never read any Tolkein, especially when I tried reading the trilogy a few years ago and got very bored. But now I’ve read The Silmarillion. The bottom line is, while I’ve only stumbled through The Silmarillion once, over the course of six months, I did enjoy it. And I now look forward to reading The Hobbit and the trilogy.

If you have read The Silmarillion, did you find it a challenge? Are you a fan of Tolkein?

If you have reviewed The Silmarillion on your site, leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it here.

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. I’ve never read The Silmarillion, but I have read The Hobbit (twice, for two separate English classes), and I made it through the first two books in the Lord of the Rings trilogy before I realized I didn’t care what happened and stopped (oddly, the same thing happened to me with the movies too! I’ve never seen the last one! I blame the Ents storyline…. soooo boring.).

    I am very lukewarm on Tolkien. I can see how people would love him, because he has definitely developed an immersive world, but he just doesn’t really do it for me. I particularly hate when he starts to write poems & songs in his books… Anything in italics in his books gets skipped over by me! But no, I don’t think he’s a challenging writer, in general in terms of style. I think he might have a propensity for rattling on too much and boring those who aren’t immediately diehard fans, but his language is not something that I think is inaccessible.

  2. I can’t imagine being interested in The Silmarillion without reading LOTR. I have always wondered if I would like it, and I still can’t decide! I love LOTR and have read the series through about four times since middle school. I think because of the age I was when I first read it, there is a magic to it that I love. I could do without The Hobbit, but a lot of people might disagree with me. I have been interested in reading the newly published Children of Hurin. The big question is, should I read The Silmarillion first? Your review is encouraging!

  3. I’m so glad you read and reviewed this. I have been debating when to read the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy – both of which I haven’t read yet. I want to read them, just need to make the time… Now I want to add The Silmarillion too! I would also be very interested to see if anyone out there has read them all and would have a recommendation about whether to read The Silmarillion first or last.

  4. I’m supposed to read The Hobbit this year. I’m a little trepidatious. Tolkien scares me. i don’t think I would have made it through this book. I figure if my son could make it through the Hobbit when he was six, I can handle that one.

  5. I first read The Hobbit when I was 7 yrs old, and I read all three Lord of the Rings (TLOR) books in the years following. I remember reading the Simarillion but I can’t recall if I made it all the way through or not.

    If you’re considering reading TLOR, you should start now – there is a re-read going on over at Tor.com’s blog, and they are only a handful of chapters into the first book. The posts are coming up one per week, one chapter per post, and they include lots of analyzing and interesting info. I’m loving it!

    On the other hand, I would think that reading The Hobbit first would be a good idea b/c that’s how I did it. But there are plenty of people who loved TLOR and they’ve never read The Hobbit.

    I *will* say that the feel of the books are very different. The Hobbit is more of a mythical tale being told by Bilbo – he wants to make his adventures seem grand and exciting. TLOR is more of an epic, the story of good vs. evil, and as the reader you are never quite sure which side will win out (what I mean is that the tension is high the whole time).

    And in response to the first commenter, oh no! How could you NOT like the Ents?! They are seriously one of my very favorite parts of the books. Ah well … to each their own. 

  6. Steph, oh I loved the songs and poems! I’d suggest not reading Silmarillion, because even when it’s not songs and poems it still feels like it! And this one, I suspect, is a completely different style. From what I remember of the beginning of LOTR, that read like a novel!

    Chain Reader, I guess I’m interested enough because I enjoyed the movies. Besides, I was reading it with my husband who does like it. Now I’ll read the others and hopefully they will make “more” sense.

    As for Children of Hurin, I don’t know, since I haven’t seen it. The story of “the children of Hurin” comprises about a third of the novel The Silmarillion. According to an Amazon reviewer, that book is a greatly expanded account, but still in the words of J.R.R. Tolkein, which means it still has the archaic language I discussed in this post.

    I’d say it sounds like a good compromise read, since Silmarillion does have some boring parts. As I read the part about the children of Hurin, I thought “This would be a great stand-alone story”. At first I thought “for kids” but then I decided probably not. If you read it and like it, you might like the rest of the The Silmarillion.

  7. ak, I’d say at least have an understanding of middle-earth: I gained that by watching the movies. But I also was reading along with my husband, who was familiar with LOTR. I imagine just about ANY LOTR die-hard fan will say read that first: Silmarillion could turn you off.

    Amanda, I don’t think you’d like this book. Haven’t read The Hobbit, but now I plan too! I likewise have heard it’s a bit more approachable, to say the least!

    Heather J., I probably won’t be starting LOTR for at least a month yet: I have so much I’m working on right now. And I think I’ll read The Hobbit first. But thanks for the heads up about the “read-along” discussion! That would be nice to have. I will get to both of them at some point before I die…

  8. It’s been many years but I loved reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. This sounds good too! I think I’d like to listen to it on audio book though.

  9. Tuesday, I’d say if you love LOTR, you’d probably be quite interested in the back stories of middle earth.

    Ladytink, I never read the others! I’d be interested to hear how it goes listening to this on audiobook; I think it maybe rather hard to follow, but who knows? It may be easier because the reader follows the flow of the words.

  10. I love the Hobbit and LOTR, and I adore the movies. I also love the Silmarillion, but I am one of those people who will definitely tell you not to pick it up unless you really like reading Tolkein. You might like the stories, but the reading of it is the difficult part. My husband and I will sometimes grab it off the shelf, open it at random, and read the first sentence. (If I was at home I’d do that now, just to give you an example!) His storytelling does take some getting used to.
    Also, in response to a previous comment, I would definitely recommend reading first the Hobbit, then LOTR, and then, if you’re enjoying them, the Silmarillion.
    I love the discussion on this book!

  11. Jessica, yes, but I never read Tolkein, and I made it through Silmarillion, so reading LOTR isn’t a must before Silmarillion! I think I”m probably the only one in the world that has read Silmarillion and not LOTR….I do need to read it now!

  12. Tolkien is an amazing writer after reading his trilogy and silmarillion i can say for those who cant decide between reading silmarillion that its an incredibly beautiful book and Tolkien has described the roots of his world
    Also the various stories about different characters and the power of the valars show u how small the lord of the rings trilogy was in terms of battle and effect and power of the warriors.
    I was a die hard LOTR fan when i read this book i came to know how awsome the verious stories of feanor or turin were and i found those struggles much more engrossing then even LOTR shows how good they are.
    Only thing is that through this book he has described his world so it is very geographically descriptive and detailed and the poems and songs is how Tolkien makes u feel the effect of how the middle earth would feel like.
    It is difficult language but totally worth a shot.

    1. ishan » I didn’t enjoy the trilogy (still haven’t finished the last one) but I did love this book! Such beautiful language. Thanks for visiting.

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